Hillwood Estate, National Zoo

DC Day 4

Today we visited two very different types of museums, the National Zoo and Hillwood Estate, but these two institutions have similarities. Exhibitions are either story-led or object-led or a combination of the two throughout an institution. The National Zoo has a combination of the two storytelling methods. Hillwood Estate uses the story-led method.

The National Zoo has the complex task of trying to educate visitors about conservation, animal care, and the environment when the animals are often the focus of the visitor’s interest. The animals are the object in this type of setting, and most of the exhibits are object-, or animal-led, but the Zoo is reinterpreting the information so that the exhibits are story-led. I think this is a new way of approaching exhibitions in zoos since many visitors do not have conservation at the forefront of their mind when visiting a zoo. On the other hand, conservation is an important and complex topic that should be discussed to educate visitors. A story-led design allows visitors to learn more about the animal and allows them to create a deeper connection to the animal.

Object-based label at the National Zoo
Object-based label at the National Zoo















Story-based label at the National Zoo

Hillwood Estate is the home of Marjorie Merriweather Post. Post was an avid collector who knew she wanted her house to become a museum. It is a house museum, and there are very few object labels in the house, which is a clue that the museum has a story-led approach. The text and audio guides are focused on Post as a person and collector and the spaces in the house. Object labels would be overwhelming and polluting in this setting because there are objects on nearly every wall and surface. The objects are displayed in their proper rooms where Post would have used them. The museum uses guided serendipity as an exhibition tool. Guided serendipity means that the visitor makes their own inferences and discoveries that are supported by the text and audio guides. This technique also supports the story-led approach.

Example of object case at Hillwood Estate without object labels

From what I have seen this week and what I have experienced professionally there appears to be a shift to the story-led method. Objects are still important and key to the story, but the object story fits into a larger overall story. Personally, this is conflicting because I am a collections person, so I focus on the individual object and its story more often than I do the larger narrative. I think a balance of the two storytelling methods will quiet my discomfort because a museum should have exhibitions that are diverse, yet still cohesive within the institution. People visit museums to see objects and learn about the stories associated with those objects.